Monday, August 20, 2018

Music in the '50s to the '80s, and the '80s to today: Running to standstill?

Last year U2 toured in honor of the 30th anniversary of their album The Joshua Tree.

I remember 1987 (I was just out of high school) and how much songs from that album dominated rock radio back then. It was almost nauseating, and I was someone who liked their music (but wasn't a huge fan).

I also remember what I thought of songs from thirty years earlier (1957) at that time (1987). I'd listened to plenty of the oldies station in my younger days to be familiar with the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis' "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" or the Everly Brothers' "Wake Up Little Susie" or Sam Cooke's "You Send Me" (I could go on). I liked all that music as well, but being from more than a decade before I was born it did seem... old. Again, it was very good, but... old.

Here's the thing: It is now just a little over the same amount of time passed since 1987 as had passed from 1957 to 1987. However, when I think about the music of 1987 now, it doesn't seem old. Intellectually I grasp that it is, but it doesn't seem old in the way 1957's music seemed in 1987--even though that same oldies station now plays mostly songs from the '80s (and wouldn't consider playing anything from the '50s).

The obvious difference is I experienced it firsthand; it was that halcyon time of burgeoning adulthood when one's music tastes tend to get particularly ingrained, and where one has many of those experiences one remembers with nostalgia in one's middle years. I'm sure that is part of it.

The less obvious part is this: I think rock music today still kinda sounds like music from 1987, from a structure and production standpoint--certainly moreso than songs from 1987 sounded like songs from 1957. Clearly the '50s were still early in the rock era and the recording techniques had not developed to the point where they were in the '80s, so it is easy to see how those periods would simply sound different. Contemporary technology has progressed so much farther since 1987 that you'd think it would make 1987 sound like 1957, but I don't think it does.

Let's look at it this way: I'd argue one could take a current rock song and time travel back to 1987 and get a programmer to put it on the radio, it would not stand out that much from the music of the time. Whereas the same theoretical experiment of taking a typical 1987 song back to 1957 and putting on the radio then would result in it really sticking out like the proverbial sore thumb. (Yes, there were retro acts who would fit in fine, but that was not the whole of rock radio at the time.)

As to whether this still-sounding-similar is why rock has not been the dominant popular music genre for quite some time, or because rock has not been the dominant popular music genre for some time it still sounds similar, I dare not say. Or maybe it's simply that the acts today grew up listening to that and of course that influenced their sound and that's the model they follow.

I should concede that as a middle-aged parent I don't keep up with the cutting edge of contemporary music that perhaps is progressing in impressive ways, and undoubtedly I'm overlooking many current popular rock artists who don't just sound like they'd fit in three decades ago, but as regards what gets played on the radio (to the extent anyone listens to the radio anymore) it seems like the sound has only incrementally changed.

Perhaps it's more that I have been alive for the past three decades and acclimated to the day-to-day tiny adjustments to the world over that span that make it seem like progress has been little, whereas the 30 years prior to that I was either not yet born or very young or still not an adult, and that past seemed so vastly different because I had not lived through it all in the same way. It's possible that arbitrarily picking any point in time and comparing that to a point 30 years earlier where one had lived through that period as an adult (or from late teens) would seem more similar than the same sort of comparison of a period one had not lived through, and there's nothing particularly special about picking the late '80s as when rock's sound seemed to become encased in amber.

But that's really what it boils down to: It seemed to stop evolving. This isn't about the actuality of what has happened, because obviously it has changed; to my ears it merely has the semblance of not changing that dramatically, and it's entirely likely it's just an inadequacy on my part--perhaps due to being middle-aged. I am what would still fit in back in the '80s.

So if you're a rock fan in, say, your seventies/eighties now (and recall the '50s through the '80s) or your teens/young twenties (and look back at the '80s the way I did the '50s), please let me know what you think.

Not that either of those groups reads blogs, but on the off-chance you come across this, please chime in.


For me personally, 1987 was far more important as the year I discovered the Replacements--a band that still means far more to me than U2. However, while they did re-form and tour a few years ago, it wasn't specifically about the 30th anniversary of a particular album, and thus weren't the inspiration here.

1 comment:

  1. I disagree. Looking at number one hits from 1987– ‘the way it is’, ‘nothing is going to stop us now’, ‘heart and soul’. I don’t think they would blend in with today’s hits. Today’s pop is dominated hip hop. I don’t think there is a lot of that in 1987 pop.


So, what do you think?